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The Adversarial Culture in Philosophy Does Not Serve the Truth
Philosophical discussions, whether in a professional setting or at the bar, frequently consist of calling out mistakes in whatever has been proposed: ‘This is all very well, but …’ This adversarial style is often celebrated as truth-conducive. Eliminating false assumptions seems to leave us with truth in the marketplace of ideas. Although this is a fairly pervasive practice (even I am practising it right now), I doubt that it is a particularly good approach to philosophical discussions. The lack of progress in adversarial philosophical exchange might rest on a simple but problematic division of labour: in professional settings such as talks, seminars and papers, we standardly criticise others’, rather than our own, views. At the same time, we clearly risk our reputation much more when proposing an idea rather than criticising it. This systematically disadvantages proponents of (new) ideas.
Adversarial criticism is commonly driven by a binary understanding of ideas. Claims are either true or false; arguments are either valid or invalid. If this understanding is correct, then the exclusion of false or invalid points does indeed seem to leave us with true ideas. If this were the case, criticism would indeed be a good way of responding to the proponent of an idea. But how well does this work in practice? The philosopher Catherine Hundleby at the University of Windsor in Ontario analysed how argumentation is taught to students and concluded that ‘argument repair’, in which the proponents of a position revise their argument in response to criticism, is greatly neglected. Instead, what is emphasised are quick tools for evaluating arguments by putting ‘fallacy labels’ onto them. This is less helpful than one might think because it’s purely negative.
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